ATLANTA | When the Washington Nationals broke camp from spring training six weeks ago, they did so with the assumption that they'd be running out a lineup with Rick Ankiel in center field and the theoretical Grapefruit League MVP Michael Morse in left.
But with Morse scuffling and Ankiel on the disabled list with a sprained right wrist — along with a .221 batting average and .302 on-base percentage as the team's No. 2 hitter — Laynce Nix made his eighth consecutive start Wednesday night, in left field alongside Roger Bernadina in center.
That's a combination the Nationals may be using a lot more in the future — even when Ankiel and Morse, who had been nursing a sore right knee for much of last week, are healthy. Ankiel is eligible to come off the DL on May 19.
"I'm just trying to put the best lineup I can out there," said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman.
"When Rick comes back, what we've got to determine is there's four guys but there's two spots there," Riggleman added. "Do we put Rick back in center? Do we leave [Bernadina] in center and put Rick in left? There's a lot to think about there and we just don't have to do that yet."
The fact is, the play of Bernadina and Nix has made the decision difficult, and the Nationals are exploring their options. Late in Sunday's game at Florida, Nix, who had been playing right field, and Bernadina, who had been in center, switched positions so that Nix could get an opportunity to see some action in center as well.
While Morse entered the season fresh off an outstanding spring training, he hasn't been able to replicate the type of production that led him to a .364 average with nine home runs and 18 RBI in Grapefruit League play. In 28 regular-season games, Morse has hit just .241 with two homers and a .247 on-base percentage.
With Nix hitting better than most Nationals starters (.258 average, .484 slugging percentage) and continuing to show power — the latest example a laser home run to right field, his fourth, that bounced off the second deck at Turner Field on Tuesday night — it's tough to justify not keeping him in the lineup.
It's especially tough against right-handed starting pitching, which the Nationals faced in Tommy Hanson on Wednesday night.
"There's no difficulty," Riggleman said about deciding to keep Nix in the lineup even with Morse able to play. "Basically I'm just choosing to play Nix. ... It's a nice thing if you've got a left-handed hitter and they've got a right-handed pitcher, you feel like you might pop one. It's not difficult to put him in there at all and he's a good defensive player as well. We're just trying to ride that right now."
In much the same way the Nix provides power and pop in a lineup that has lacked it for much of the season, Bernadina fills another need when Riggleman can place him atop the lineup.
Since Bernadina was recalled from Triple-A Syracuse, he led off three straight games. He was 2-for-11 in that time but also has walked twice, reached on an error, stolen two bases and scored three runs. With Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa both profiling better as hitters lower in the lineup, Bernadina's value as a leadoff hitter is great. As long as he continues to perform well defensively in center, Ankiel returning from the disabled list won't be Bernadina's ticket back to Triple-A.
"We need him in that leadoff spot," Riggleman said. "We just look for him to show us that he can play center field. In the past, I think he's been really excellent in left field. He's been OK in center, but the last few days he's played very good in center field. We just hope that he shows us he can do that and leadoff."
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